You can write yourself into being.
(Pedagogy) Philosophy and Nonsense      
Thoughts about writing, education, and experience                                  Presented by Forrest D. Poston

The first goal of teaching is to strengthen, deepen and refine our intrinsic love of learning. All other goals and all methods must stem from that idea. Any that do not support that goal must at least be questioned and adjusted, if not eliminated. Otherwise, we are not teaching but training.

Make friends with your writing.

Writing and Education

Autobiography Challenge

Considering Conclusions

Considering Introductions

Four Meanings of Life

Godot and the Great Pumpkin

A Major is More Minor Than
You Think

The Poetry Process (A look at 4 versions of a poem.)

Thoughts About Picking a Major

Quick Points About Education

Quick Points About Writing

Reading Poetry and Cloud Watching

Revising Revision

Reviving Experience

Reviving Symbolism

Using an Audience


What Makes a Story True?

What's the Subject of This Class? (Being revised.)

Why Write?

Writing and Einstein (The Difference Between Information and Meaning)

Writing and the Goldilocks Dilemma

Links to Other Sites
Why Write:  Legos, Power and Control        by Forrest D. Poston
(This article was "reprinted" at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education site New Horizons for Learning:

Most students write because the teacher said so. Actually, most of what students do is because the teacher said so, but that's an unsatisfactory reason, and it tends to create an unsatisfactory, passive relationship between teacher and student, student and material/learning, and the teacher and material/learning. I drive my students nuts because I won't give specific assignments. Each time a students asks, "What do you want?" it means that we're playing the too familiar game "Please the Teacher." But the real reason to write, the reason to learn, is for yourself. It works best when students and teachers both recognize better ways to play the game, but when necessary it's possible to write for yourself and please the teacher at the same time (so they'll leave you alone enough to go about doing what you need).

The upside is that writing for yourself is more beneficial (to you AND the reader) and more fun, but in many ways writing for yourself is more difficult and more painful, in some ways dangerous. Writing for the teacher or any writing that has an external audience as the primary purpose is relatively safe because you stay in known territory. Sure, you may go look up some facts and quotes, and maybe punctuation feels like unknown territory, but you know the process, the game, the rules. Even when one of the rules is getting your grade trashed for a comma splice, there's a type of security in knowing the punishment. The process takes on a passive quality that separates the writer from the word, and as a result nothing is changed by the act of writing or by the act of reading the result. The teacher gets to spend time marking technical details, and the student gets a grade. Big deal. It isn't worth the effort for anybody involved, and it's one reason why the burn-out rate is so high for teachers and why students resist (actively or passively).

Writing for yourself isn't about redoing what's been done; it's not about the known. Writing for yourself is about exploration, mystery, darkness, surprise. It's about using the known as a springboard, walking to the edge and taking a dive. It's about creating your world and yourself out of the material you discover. It's about attitude and desire, responsibility and play. It's about taking control and relinguishing control. It's about chaos, power, and Legos.

We'll start with knowledge, since going back to without form and void seems excessive. By the time students make it to my class, they've already accumulated quite an array of knowledge, and most of them have heard that knowledge is power, but they have little power. Most of us lack power no matter what our knowledge. That's because we cheat. Adults, teachers, we cheat. One of our most popular ways of controlling the young is by using partial quotes. To be a bit more fair, most of the adults and teachers cheat unconsciously because they were manipulated in the same way. We say curiousity killed the cat to keep children from investigating areas we want them to avoid for any reason. We keep the next line, satisfaction brought him back, to ourselves if we know it at all. In that way we twist a quote in favor of investigation against itself and shrink your world. (I'll note now that there are some references in here that I will have to look up and add later, but the material is familiar enough that I don't think it will matter for the moment.)

In a similar way, we've manipulated the knowledge is power quote, which I learned unexpectedly. While browsing through one of the various anthologies around the house, I came across the essay that I think is the most common source for the quote. (I think I found similar quotes in two essays, one of which was only the short form, but the essays seem to have vanished from all the anthologies.) The more complete version says that knowledge and the ability to use it are power. What most people have is information more than knowledge, bits and pieces, names and dates. We have the pieces of unassembled tools and sometimes the tools themselves without instructions. That's one reason so many students ask why they have to keep memorizing what appears to be useless information.

Separation causes uselessness, but much of Western civilization is based on separating the parts. One date is separate from another, history separate from math which is separate from biology. It's a world view we inherited from Newton and Descartes, so useful in many ways and disastrous in others. However, there has always been an alternative view of the universe as a single, totally interconnected system. You'll find that in Eastern traditions, American Transcendentalism, and at least some aspects of quantum physics. I suspect seeing both perspectives simultaneously may be the best path, and it will work as a metaphor for the next step.

When we look at the pieces AND the relationships between them we begin to discover patterns, and patterns are where we find meaning and the means to use knowledge. Using knowledge brings power, and using the knowledge well increases power. If everything moved in a tidy, linear pattern I'd put control before power to avoid misuse of power, but control is difficult to develop until there is something to control. Fortunately, the patterns of real knowledge have a tendency to express a measure of control while more conscious control develops. So here we are developing knowledge, utility, power, and control, but how? By playing with Legos, the biggest, best set of Legos you can imagine.

The best news is that you already have the Legos down in the basement, that fun part of the mind best known as the subconscious. Most of us don't have a great working relationship with the subconscious, largely because we spend so much time training a very small portion of the conscious, supposedly rational part of the brain. It's not just that the subconscious feels like Cinderella; Cinderella got better treatment. Still, the subconscious rarely goes on strike, and I think that's because it's having too much fun on its own anyway. The brain is built to learn, not just memorize, and right now your subconscious is having a terrific time playing around with information and knowledge, putting piece together in different ways, knocking them down, putting them together again, and discovering patterns just like you did when you were a kid. You used to love putting things together, rearranging (breaking), experimenting as long as nobody called it educatin, and if your parents went with brand names, you did a lot of your experimenting with Legos.

You tinkered with Legos, found which patterns worked, which fell over or fell apart. You may have had one of the sets designed to build a specific shape, but you preferred to find your own forms, to create rather than simply repeat. As you played, you got better at making the decisions, and as you got better, you enjoyed it more. Right now, your subconscious is down there playing with Legos, with a set of Legos that just keeps getting bigger and bigger without having to beg for a new set. Your subconscious is having a ball, and you aren't even invited to play anymore.

The good news is that you have time and opportunity to make up with yourself. The subconscious keeps floating ideas and realizations up to the surface. It's just that you've gotten so distracted you either don't notice or dismiss the thoughts. You remember some of those strays moments, driving in the car or taking a shower and an idea pops in from nowhere. Some of them you meant to write down later, but you forgot. I do have some students every term who tell me they don't have ideas or stray thoughts, but they realize differently when they start listening. Ideas are always popping up because that's just part of what the brain does.

Start writing down the ideas when they come whispering. Don't wait until a particular time of day to write them all down. Jot something down right then. Keep a pocket-size notebook with you if possible, or keep paper around where you can see it easily. Write on napkins or the margin of your notes in class if you have to. Later you can gather things together in one notebook and play with the ideas some more. They may not go anywhere immediately, but be patient. At first, the trick is just letting the subconscious know you're listening. Writing thoughts down shows that you care about the game, and the more you play the game, the more your subconscious will tinker and float ideas up for you to say wow. In time, you'll start noticing patterns consciously, much to the relief of your subconscious, who probably suspects your IQ is disturbingly low when you won't play.

With the awareness of patterns, you will start to see ways to shape and apply your knowledge. You'll learn to manipulate information into useful forms, and with manipulation you have the elements of power. It's being used to manipulate you every day in commercials, movies, politics, the classroom, on this page, everywhere. One of the advantages of becoming aware of patterns and manipulation is that you learn to recognize and resist manipulations you don't want. (Like any ability or the information itself, manipulation is neither good nor bad. That's a matter of application. Even the attempts to manipulate you with advertising aren't "bad." It's simply up to you to be self-aware enough to use the information rather than be used by it.) And if you don't think the commericial manipulation works, look at how many people around you today are wearing clothes that advertise a company, and think of how much they overpaid.

But power without control can destroy. It's the difference between a nuclear reaction that produces energy and a very, very large radioactive crater. And while manipulation suggests control over others, what's really at stake is self-control. We like feeling in control, but many of us feel little if any sense of control in our lives. It's a problem I face with my students every term, especially since they come in assuming that I'm going to control them anyway with assignments that take away important choices. It terrifies me that I have to fight and trick them into taking control and give up the passive, determined to be bored, attitude too many of them start with.

Start by taking control of your Legos. You can't be cut off from the subconscious toys because they're right there with you. Play your own mind games. Discover the patterns that contain meaning or the elements of meaning for you to shape and refine. As you learn to play better, you recognize uses for new information, new Legos, and you see choices. If you only see the possibilities someone else allows you to see, you have no power and no control. Discover choices and possibilities from the inside out, and you gain the power to control your own life. Listen to your Legos, and play with them on paper, trusting that as you write new forms and twist old ones some of the results will work. Cranking out a paper in one draft the night before it's due won't give you control, but play over time will give you all you need-----and it can help you work better when you suddenly realize that it is the night before and you haven't started your history paper.

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Other Essays and Poetry

Something Somewhat Vaguely Like a Resume

Alec Kirby, Memories of an Earnest Imp
Being Like Children

Beyond the Genes (Dad)

The Blessing and the Blues

Bookin' Down Brown Street

The Cat With a Bucket List

David and the Revelation

The Dawn, the Dark, and the Horse I Didn't Ride In On (an odd, meandering, semi-romantic story)

Getting a Clue

Ghost Dancer in the Twilight Zone

The Hair Connection and the Nature of Choices

I Believe in Capra

The Mug, the Magic, and the Mistake

Roto, Rooter and the Drainy Day

Sadie on the Bridge

Trumpet Player, USDA Approved



Selected Poems

The Poetry Process

Links to Other Sites